Chinchillas are native to the Andes Mountains in South America. In their native environment, they would live in colonies, also known as herds, and would make their homes in burrows or crevices in rocks. They can live at high altitudes of up to 15,000 feet.
Chinchillas are prey animals and in the wild are hunted by birds, snakes, felines and canines. They have developed a variety of defense tactics against predators, including spraying urine and slipping fur. They can also jump as high as six (6) feet.
In the early 1900's, an American engineer by the name of M.F. Chapman was working in Chile. He was introduced to chinchillas by local Indians who used them for their fur. He was allowed to capture 11 chinchillas and bring them back to the U.S. to breed and sell. It is widely believed that all domesticated chinchillas are descendents of the original 11 brought back by Chapman.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE GETTING A CHINCHILLA
If you are considering purchasing or adopting a chinchilla for yourself or anyone else, there are a few things to consider:
1. Chinchillas are not always friendly, huggable pets that like to be held. Some owners have the pleasure of having tame chinchillas who love attention, but, for the most part owning a chinchilla is a lot like having a cat. They want to do what they want to do, and prefer to not be held or cuddled.
2. Chinchillas are nocturnal. They sleep all day and spend all night running on their wheel, bouncing around their cage, chewing toys and eating. If you plan to have your chinchilla's cage in the room where you sleep, be aware that this may be a problem.
3. Chinchillas can live up to 20 years, maybe more. Owning a chinchilla is a long-term commitment. Before you purchase or adopt a pet, make sure you are prepared for a pet with such a life expectancy.
4. Chinchillas can be expensive pets, especially in the beginning. The chinchilla itself can be an expensive purchase, but you also need adequate housing, a cage that is safe and sturdy - and accessories. Chinchillas also require food and hay, dust for bathing and bedding.
5. Vet care for chinchillas can be quite expensive and you will need a vet with exotic experience. Chinchillas generally only require vet care when there is an illness or injury, and for this reason there are not a lot of vets with chinchilla experience. You will want to make sure you have a vet lined up ahead of time instead of waiting until you need one. They can sometimes be harder to find than you think.
6. Chinchillas can overheat quickly and it is imperative that they be kept cool. If you do not have air conditioning or a cool room in your house, a chinchilla may not be the right pet for you. It is thought that the highest temperature can tolerate is 75 degrees. It is best to keep your chinchilla in a temperature range of between 65 and 70 degrees year round.
7. Do you have allergies? Most pet owners will not have allergies to the chinchillas, but to their dust or hay. If you have allergies to either of these, you can still own a chinchilla but might want to wear a mask and/or gloves when handling the dust and hay. You may also benefit from using an air purifier in the room where your chinchillas are housed.
PURCHASING OR ADOPTING YOUR CHINCHILLA
While you can purchase a chinchilla from a pet store, you can also purchase directly from a breeder, or a rescue.
There is nothing wrong with purchasing a chinchilla from a pet store, except that the pet store is then encouraged to continue selling them as pets. My problem with pet stores is that I feel like they do not take proper care of small pets, they do not give correct advice on keeping and care of small pets, and the accessories and toys they sell are not always safe. I, myself, just have a problem supporting and encouraging that to continue.
When purchasing from a breeder, you want to do your research and make sure you are buying from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder is breeding to improve, not to make cute pets or a lot of money. A breeder should be able to tell you the age of the chinchilla, show you it's parents if it was born on-site, and provide you with the pedigree of your chinchilla. A good quality chinchilla bought from a reputable breeder is also what you want to purchase if you are ever considering breeding your chinchilla. Pet store or rescue chinchillas should never be bred. Stay away from "backyard breeders" who have poor quality chinchillas and cannot provide you with a pedigree.
There are also a lot of chinchillas in rescues at this time. A lot of people jump into chinchilla ownership and then end up not being able to properly care for their pets. Most times, there is nothing wrong with these chinchillas. Do not overlook rescue chinchillas. They need homes too.
HOUSING AND ACCESSORIES
Chinchillas should not be kept outside, and the inside temperature should not be kept above 75 degrees. Chinchillas have extremely dense fur (80 to 120 strands per follicle) and can easily overheat. Because of this, the area where your chinchilla is kept should be well ventilated and have relatively low humidity.
It is also important to remember that your chinchilla is a prey animal, and should not be housed, or let out to play, in an area near ferrets, snakes, dogs or cats. It is not worth the life of your chinchilla to see if it can be friends with your other pets. They are natural predators and it their instinct to attack their prey, no matter how domesticated.
Your chinchillas cage will be their home for their lifetime, and if they can live up to 20 years you'll want to make sure you are buying a good quality cage that will not need to be replaced. You should purchase the largest and sturdiest cage you can afford. It is better to buy a cage that is taller than it is wide and fill it with wood ledges, perches and shelves so your chinchilla has room to jump and explore his home.
Our favorite cages are Quality Cage Mansions, made by Quality Cage Company (www.qualitycage.com). Our chinchillas both have their own mansions, but the townhouse is perfectly fine too. These cages come with wooden shelves and are so easy to assemble. They also fold completely flat.
Another favorite is the Ferret Nation cage. These cages do require some modification, so be prepared for some added expenses if you choose to purchase one. The shallow plastic pans will need to be replaced, or covered with fleece to prevent chewing, and the wire ramps will also need to be removed or covered with fleece as well. Chinchillas prefer to jump, so ramps aren't really necessary. If you do choose to leave the ramps, please be aware that your chinchilla's feet can get caught in the wire spacing. It is important to cover the ramps in fleece to prevent any injuries.
If you are interested in replacing the plastic pans in your Ferret Nation, most owners order metal replacement pans from Bass Equipment (www.bassequipment.com).
Your chinchillas cage will also need a chinchilla safe wheel. We have the Flying Saucer wheels in both of our chinchillas cages, but the Chin Spin is also a good choice. Do not buy a cheap pet store wheel that is wire or plastic. Spend the extra money and buy a wheel that is built to last the lifetime of your chinchilla, and is safe for your furry friend. Look for a wheel that is at least 15 inches in diameter.
Chinchillas also enjoy having a space to burrow or hide in. Some chinchillas enjoy wooden houses, and others prefer fleece items. Whichever it is, maybe both, provide at least one to your pet.
You will also need to provide your chinchilla with a water bottle, a bowl for food, a container for hay and a place to dust.
FEEDING YOUR CHINCHILLA
Your chinchilla should be free-fed a good quality pellet and hay, and always have a source of fresh filtered water.
Most chinchilla owners fed pellets specifically for chinchillas, but some rabbit pellets are also acceptable. Brands we have had good experience with are American Pet Diner, Oxbow, Tradition and Mazuri.
Hay can be offered in loose or cube form, and offering both is a good option. A chinchillas teeth are constantly growing and providing different cuts of hay is essential to keep your chinchillas teeth worn down. It also provides high fiber, which keeps the chinchillas digestive system moving properly. Timothy hay can be found in 1st, 2nd and 3rd cuts of hay, each having a different texture and working to wear down a different section of teeth. Other grass hays include: Oat, Orchard, Botanical, Meadow and Bermuda. Alfalfa hay has a higher calcium content and, therefore, should be fed sparingly. Brands we have had good experience with include: American Pet Diner, Oxbow and Kleenmamas Hayloft.
You should always provide your chinchilla with fresh water and always make sure their bottle is kept clean. Chinchillas should be given filtered or reverse osmosis water, as tap water can contain small amounts of bacteria and parasites that may be harmful, even deadly, to your chinchilla.
Though it's fun for your pet, and makes you feel good, food treats should be given sparingly. Our favorite food treats include: rose hips, dried hibiscus, dried rose petals, cheerios, old fashioned oats (NOT instant), unfrosted shredded wheat, hay cakes/cubes, and homemade hay/pellet cookies. Non-food treats are just as fun for you and your pet, and are a healthier alternative. These include: chinchilla safe wood (sticks and coins), pumice and other chew toys. Giving too many food treats can lead to digestive upset and other issues, so it is best to keep food treats to a minimum.